Musings Of A Spiritual Atheist
The Right To Die

Among many religious people, human life is considered to be sacred. Many religions say it is a gift from god and should be honoured and accepted with thanks. Often, this is accompanied with teachings to the effect that since the life comes from god, it belongs to him and should be used in serving and worshipping him. For many who believe like that doing so becomes their reason for living.

Then, within the blink of an eye, those same people will send young men off to war to be slaughtered in some national dispute not related to the worship of god at all, but often about which national state will exercise control over a tract of land or what political philosophy will be exercised somewhere. Suddenly, the sacred life belonging to god becomes the state’s to do with as it pleases, all with the active support and endorsement of those same religious leaders who just a little previously were so sanctimoniously asserting the sacredness of god’s gift and how it belonged to him for his service.

I am not disputing the right of a state to engage in a war if it is absolutely necessary for national survival, but I do believe that necessity should be a fundamental requirement and going to war should not just be an expedient thing to do. Life is important and should be honoured, not because it belongs to god and comes as a gift, but because it is the only one that an individual will experience and the loss of that opportunity by being killed in an unnecessary war is a tragedy for the individuals who are killed and their families.

I am disputing the right of religious leaders, who are often presumed to speak for god, to misuse their influence over their members and convince them they must put their lives at risk and do their best to kill others, all in god’s name. That is a disgrace. If there were a god, surely all men of all nations, regardless of their beliefs, would have had lives given to them which were equally sacred and which should equally well be used to worship him. That being so, cutting their lives short for reasons of political expediency would be grossly insulting to god and intensely dishonourable. People have only one life to live and it should not be cut short.

The point is that, in practice, many religions consider that life is only sacred under some circumstances. Under other circumstances, such as war, life becomes expendable and the sacredness may be perverted into becoming a sacrifice to a greater ideal, i.e. whatever is in the national interest at the time. Religionists ignore the fact that national interests are things owned by the state. Instead, they take the life they say is owned by god and give it to the state to spend in its own interests. If they really believed that life was a gift from god and actually owned by him, then they would keep to the assertion that it should be used for his service. Instead they give it to the state, to Caesar, thereby violating Jesus’ command to give to Caesar what belongs to him and to give to god what belongs to him.

I am not promoting pacifism or conscientious objection to war here. My point actually has nothing much to do with war. I am pointing out the lack of consistency among religious groups regarding their views on the sacredness of life. At one time it is sacred and to be guarded as a gift from god. At another time it is a disposable commodity in the use of national objectives. The point I am stressing is that under some circumstances churches may endorse the view that a life can be ended with the sanction of both the state and the church, while at other times they insist it must be held sacrosanct.

It must also be noted that the ancient Israelites do not appear to have considered life to be sacred either. There were numerous offences, including juvenile delinquency, for which the penalty imposed was stoning or “cutting off from among the people” by some method of execution. It is pointedly recorded that sometimes their Canaanite enemies, men, women and children, were systematically slaughtered after being defeated in battle, an action that would now be considered a war crime and blatant murder. All except the young, fresh, virgin girls, that is.

What I do not understand is the double standard. The ancients killed whenever it suited them without being condemned. Soldiers are encouraged to kill and not only are they not condemned, they are praised for it, and those soldiers who knowingly give up their lives in an act of courage are proclaimed as heroes. Yet in our own time, a person at the end of their life and in excruciating pain from some kind of pervasive and incurable cancer is not allowed to end their life in dignity. Not only is it not permitted, those who manage to do it are roundly condemned and those who helped them are put in prison. All because religions claim life is sacred and a gift from god.

Life is not sacred, it is not a gift, it just is. It arose by chance on our planet and will one day cease. Each life is equally important, no matter what species it belongs to. A human’s life has no greater inherent importance than that of a dog or a pig. All life forms are equal in importance and have a role to play in our world’s ecosystems. We have no compunction about ending a dog’s life when it is in extreme pain and has no chance of recovery, in fact, we consider it to be a humane and kind action to take. We look on it favourably as a positive act and an expression of concern, even love, for the animal. Yet we insist that our closest family members must live in extreme pain without relief until they die naturally, and say we did that because we loved them. If it is an act of loving compassion to end the life of a dog in pain, why is it not equally an act of loving compassion to end the life of a parent who is in even greater pain?

Whose life is it? It is not a god’s, because there are no ethereal beings and gods do not exist. Each person’s life belongs to them. We acknowledge that is the case when a soldier decides to perform an act of valour and dies. We honour him. We do not say he had no right to die because it was not his life to give, instead, we let him decide what to do with his life, and praise him for making what is euphemistically referred to as the ultimate sacrifice. Well, then, doesn’t the person with an advanced and incurable form of cancer who is living with intense, uncontrollable pain also own their own life? Should they not be the one to decide whether the quality of their life is insufficient to remain living? Should they not be the one to decide what to do with that life, just like the courageous soldier? How is it any different if they voluntarily decide to end their own life? Fundamentally, there is no difference.

We can go even further than that. It is the right of any person to dispose of their own property. A person’s life is their own, personal property and they should be free to decide how that life should be lived, including when it is to end. There should be safeguards, of course. We do not permit someone in obvious mental distress, for instance, to give away everything they own since they are not able to make rational decisions. Instead, we have them committed for mental incompetence or appoint a legal guardian, and compel them to wait until they return to a mental state where they can make such a decision in a rational manner. Where there is no sign of mental distress, we do allow them to take such action and consider the decision to be nobody’s business but their own. For those people who are in a similar mental state and wish to end their lives the same thing should apply. Do not permit them to carry out their decision until such time as they are capable of dealing with the matter in a rational manner, otherwise leave them alone to do what they want.

I do not envisage that millions of people would rush to end their lives if this were the standard in society. The fact is that evolution has given us the desire to preserve our lives, not deliberately end them, so for most people it is a non-issue. There are, however, at least two groups who may wish to take advantage of it. The first has already been mentioned: those who have incurable diseases that leave them in great distress and who want to end their suffering. In those particular cases it should be looked on as a medical matter, and facilitated in a medical manner, even carried out in a medical environment by either medically trained personnel or relatives who are willing to abide by the person’s wishes. As long as it is clear that it is the person’s decision, taken rationally and without duress, it should be nobody’s business but those directly involved.

A second group who might want to end their lives are those who are in emotional distress. Usually this would be from some kind of personal tragedy or trauma, such as death of a child or a long term dysfunction from early life experiences and abuse. Since those kinds of experiences often cause depression, people that experience them may be more likely to make decisions that are irrational, and it is this group who would likely make up the bulk of those requiring intervention to ensure their decision was taken while rational and that it truly represents how they want to deal with their problem. At the moment, these people are often put in the position of having to hide what they are contemplating and end up killing themselves in secret. Other people are often unaware of what they are contemplating and they may commit suicide while under duress after making an emotional rather than a rational decision to do so. If society were more open to discussing peoples’ feelings of suicide without being judgmental, it could well be that a period of counselling might result in them changing their minds when the intensely emotional period has ended and they return to a rational state. I would expect that most people in this situation would do so in a relatively short while when their depression ends.

Treating people with emotional problems as weak or inferior in mental capacity does not address the real problem. It merely gives others an excuse to control them, even to the extent of drugging them into semi-insensibility to keep them alive, while nothing is done to deal with the underlying problems. How can someone who is so drugged up that their reasoning capacity becomes impaired be expected to make a rational decision? Obviously, this whole area is of concern and few would want a society where those with emotional problems are encouraged to end their lives, even if that encouragement is passive. Instead, we should be making extra effort to provide people with the support they need to return to normalcy and rationality. However, when the person is no longer in an emotionally disturbed state and takes a rational decision to end their life, they should not be stopped from carrying out their wishes. We cannot see inside the mind of another person and cannot comprehend the mental trauma they undergo, so we should not force them to live in a life they find repugnant.

While one person should not be permitted to take the decision to end another person’s life, there has to be some provision made for those cases where someone is in a coma and unlikely to recover or where there is severe brain damage or brain death but the body is kept alive by machine support. The default assumption should always be that the person would prefer to remain alive, but the doctors and the family members involved should make the decision whether to stop the artificial life support and allow nature to rule, based on their knowledge of the person. Often, this is more a case of when machine support should be removed, rather than if it should be done.

Should the person have previously stated what they want to happen in various situations, i.e. they have provided a living will documenting their preferences, then their stated wishes must overrule everyone else. For that reason, I strongly recommend that everyone provide such a document to their family physician and at least one responsible member of the family. I am opposed to any attempt to nullify such wills or have them set aside. Where the person has stated their wishes, it should be followed regardless of the opinions of other family members, medical and hospital staff or the judiciary. Where necessary, extrapolation of the person’s wishes should be made for circumstances they did not contemplate based on the stated preferences in their living will. The underlying principle should surely be to respect the individual’s wishes regarding the disposition of their life. To do otherwise would be showing them the greatest disrespect.


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